Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
On January 3, 1956, along a river bank, five young men all in their twenties were stabbed and bled to death. None of the perpetrators was ever brought to justice. The names of the victims—Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, and Jim Elliot.
Yes, this was the slaying of perhaps one of the best known group of missionaries in the 20th century, and a story with which you’re probably familiar. These men and their families were called to take the Gospel to Ecuador, to the unreached Auca tribe well-known for their violence. In doing so, they laid down their lives for the well-being of their fellow man.
Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth, told the story of these men, their mission, and their deaths in the 1957 bestseller Through Gates of Splendor . It inspired a generation to missionary service in the 1900s. But the sacrifice of these men is only the beginning of this story. The way one family responded to this brutal crime is the truly sensational part, and the reason this story is worth us revisiting today.
You know, painfully aware of the danger, after her husband’s death Elisabeth Elliott took their 10-month-old daughter and returned to live among the same tribe that killed her husband and his companions. For two years she shared Jesus with them and worked to earn their trust. As a result, many tribe members became followers of Jesus, including some of the murderers.
Dramatized in the 2006 movie End of the Spear , this story of murder, forgiveness, and redemption holds more lessons for believers than simply a call to missionary service. It shows how a biblical response to crime can transform individuals, communities, and entire cultures.
When we hear of Elisabeth Elliot’s response to the slaying of her husband, are we inspired to love and forgive? Are we challenged to seek the kind of justice that restores both the victim and offender? Are we prompted to go into prisons to share the redemptive love of Jesus Christ?
At Prison Fellowship we believe that no one behind bars is beyond redemption. We dare not forget that in Jesus’ final moments on the cross he promised fellowship in Paradise to a repentant criminal condemned to death.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Phillip Yancey points out that when we receive God’s grace and mercy, we think it is “amazing grace.” But when we are asked to extend that same grace and mercy to those who have harmed us, it is offensive and scandalous. The very thought of a widow going to live among her husband’s killers is hard to embrace.
But as followers of Jesus we need to see crime as Elisabeth Elliot saw it: an opportunity to share Christ’s love with those who were despised.
What would it take for you and your church to see “criminals” as just such a people group? What would it take for you and your church to risk demonstrating the “scandal” of the Gospel? It might be just the very thing necessary to make the invisible Kingdom visible to a doubting world.